Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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Consumers are open to “skeptical, unconventional, or challenging” views: Publisher insights from Reuters Institute

“Impartiality – along with accuracy – remains a bedrock of trust in the news media,” states a recent report by the Reuters Institute. The report, The Relevance of Impartial News in a Polarised World, explores what readers feel about impartiality in different contexts and what they want. It is based on a mix of diaries, discussion groups, and in-depth interviews of news consumers across Brazil, Germany, the UK, and the US.

“Strive more clearly to separate news from opinion”

The survey found that most people prefer to receive a wide range of views, especially around politics and other serious and important topics. They are open to opinion pieces but only after the facts have been established.  

Engaged consumers want news to be clearly differentiated from opinion and, while they approve of reporting including analysis and context, they want it to be factual and adhere to the principle of impartiality.

The Relevance of Impartial News in a Polarised World

“The news industry needs to strive more clearly to separate news from opinion,” they add, “especially in a digital context where it can be hard to identify different types of content at a glance. 

“Labelling should be clear and obvious within websites/apps and, in particular, within distributed platforms such as social media. Publishers should take great care with analysis where the distinction between news and opinion easily blurs.”  

Additionally, survey data shows that most people are not comfortable with any viewpoints being suppressed, except when it comes to issues such as racism, bullying, and hatred. 

“Like, being racist is not okay … it is not acceptable, so there is no argument there,” said a US news reader. “I don’t need to see both sides, I don’t need someone to tell me that it’s okay to be racist or have racist tendencies, that is not an arguable or balanced topic for me.” In general, news consumers prefer to “receive all views – even those that are skeptical, unconventional, or challenging – and come to their own conclusions.” 

I started to notice the difference between one newspaper and another. And we begin to realize: that newspaper is from the left, that is from the right. And I am not in favor of that, I think that newspapers have to be more impartial. I don’t think they should mix this up with information.

A young Brazilian news consumer

“The four mindsets”

So, how should publishers respond? 

The report identifies four audience mindsets that point to different requirements of impartiality. These are: 

  1. Confident: They are avid news consumers who use multiple sources to understand different sides of a story. The report recommends publishers provide such readers with a wide range of views as well as links to other resources and official data. 
  2. Cautious: These readers are wary of the information they receive. Unlike confident readers, they do not peruse multiple sources to enhance their understanding of different stories. Publishers can assure them by emphasizing their dedication to impartiality, clearly delineating news/opinions/comments/analysis, and being transparent about their journalistic and editorial process.
  3. Concerned: News consumers in this category tend to rely more on traditional sources and news brands and avoid those they believe are partial. Reaffirming impartiality credentials will help strengthen relations with such readers. 
  4. Contented: These readers are happy with their news diets. They understand that not all news is to be taken at face value. However, they can be “naïvely unaware of being in a biased bubble.” The report suggests publishers serve such readers with entertaining comment and analysis, but differentiate this from the facts layer of news. 
Source: The Relevance of Impartial News in a Polarised World

“Powerful building block of news”

“Language is a critical area for news organizations to get right as it can easily be perceived as injecting bias in news reporting,” according to the report.

Language is a powerful building block of news that can signal bias. People extrapolate from single words and phrases to form a view of the entire coverage.

The Relevance of Impartial News in a Polarised World

Most people said they prefer neutral language. However, “zealous adherence to impartiality can make for dull reading,” the authors write. And emotional reporting can make news more compelling – at the cost of objectivity and trust. 

“The balance for news organizations depends on whether they are trying to appeal to a wider or more niche audience. Formal formats, and political coverage, need to tread more carefully.”

That said, while impartiality is important to build trust in highly engaged audiences, it is not relevant to everyone all the time. It is “considered fundamental to news about politics, and important in most serious subjects, although once the facts are established there may also be interest in comment and opinion.” 

“While not all news organizations aim for impartiality across the range of their output, audience concerns about fairness and inclusion of a range of views need to be considered – especially in news coverage, and especially by those looking to build trust with mainstream audiences.”

The Relevance of Impartial News in a Polarised World

The full report can be downloaded here:
The Relevance of Impartial News in a Polarised World